As part of my series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Alan J. Murray, president of Empire BlueCross BlueShield’s commercial plan in New York. Alan possesses an in-depth knowledge of the healthcare industry and specifically the New York market, which greatly benefits our consumers, customers and provider partners in New York. Prior to joining Empire, he most recently served as the founding President and CEO of Northwell’s CareConnect Insurance Company, Inc., the first provider-owned commercial insurance plan in New York State.
Preceding his career at CareConnect, Alan held the position of Vice President, New York Market Lead at UnitedHealthcare for more than four years and spent five years at Anthem preceding that as Regional Vice President, New York Provider & Ancillary Network Development.
Alan earned a Bachelor of Science degree in 2005 from Open University, Milton Keynes, United Kingdom and served as a Second Officer in the British Merchant Navy for six years. He lives in Syosset, NY with his wife, three children and two dogs.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I was an officer in the British Merchant Navy who bumped into an American girl in London — and then married her. I moved to the United States, and I’m probably the only person who will tell you: my mother-in-law’s best friend’s cousin got me a job interview in healthcare and that’s how I started my career. Since then I’ve worked in roles at two major health benefits companies, and also led an insurance company, CareConnect.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Early on in my career, some of my role involved entertaining, and this often involved ordering a bottle of wine. I’d pick something in the middle of the road where I felt comfortable I wouldn’t go wrong. Eventually my sister-in-law bought me a “wine bible” so that I could get smart, and I started with the chapter on France. During my first dinner out after beginning my wine education, my guest wanted wine from Italy — and I hadn’t gotten to that chapter yet. Ultimately, I let him pick, and then when it was my turn, I selected something from Bordeaux. The lesson is — sometimes you don’t know everything, but there’s a lot you can learn from others around you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
While I was in the British Merchant Navy, after meeting my girlfriend (who is now my wife), I had to go back out to sea. I was having a lot of trouble with going back and the captain sat me down and had a conversation with me to find out what was going on. He said: if you care about this person, you want to provide for her, and so you have to work. You also have teammates who rely on you. Leadership is about human connection and understanding what motivates people — and in this case, that’s exactly what the captain did with me, and it’s something I strive to do when working with my team today.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
When I joined Empire BlueCross BlueShield as president in 2018, I put together a strong leadership team and set a mission to materially and measurably improve the health of all New Yorkers. This mission is a rallying cry for our leadership. Mission drives culture and culture drives success. A great culture motivates people to self-actualize, and ultimately, propels the business.
Since setting our mission, our employee morale scores have been on the rise and we’re leading against all measured competitors for customer satisfaction. These results clearly show the impact of a strong mission.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
I focus on building a leader-leader environment — for uncertain times, and for always. I learned in the British Merchant Navy that it’s important to cultivate an incredibly agile leadership team because nothing ever goes as planned. At Empire, I built a great leadership team, set a mission and defined our purpose, and then when the uncertain time hit us — in our case, the COVID-19 pandemic, we kept our purpose clear, and our leadership was prepared to act with the destination in mind.
Our mission is to improve the health of New Yorkers — and this clarity made it easy for us to determine priorities as we navigate the pandemic.
One example I like to share is our COVID Post-Acute Care program. As a health benefits company, we know when our members are hospitalized, and so at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in New York, my leadership team leveraged this knowledge as an opportunity to reach out with personal calls. What I can tell you is that there was a lot going on, but we wanted to embrace this as an opportunity to go beyond routine clinical care management. We wanted to be there for our members and address concerns like how they would get food when they got home from the hospital or where they could access telehealth and behavioral health services if they needed support.
We also did things outside of our typical day-to-day like making connections across our network to get PPE to providers facing shortages. And I expect this type of work to continue.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I’m not someone who gives up, and frankly, I believe we should look at all times as uncertain, because we never truly know what’s coming around the corner. What I learned as a leader is that I first had to understand myself and what motivates, inspires and drives me. For me, it’s about challenging the status quo. Whenever I get comfortable, I start looking for the next challenge, and continuing to grow and learn is what sustains my drive. I like to say that it’s important for leaders to put their own oxygen mask on first so that they are equipped to look after others. This mentality keeps me going as I move from one challenge to the next.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Keep the team grounded. The most challenging times are when leaders need to tie the work back to the mission and provide inspiration. In healthcare, where I’ve built my career, I feel lucky because for many of us, it’s a calling. We come to work driven to improve the health of our families, communities and neighborhoods, and so it becomes personal for people.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It starts with embracing the uncertainty — make people aware that yes, there is uncertainty and give them the purpose and destination so they can rally around solving the problem. The more that the team owns it, the more they will be accountable and embrace what’s coming next.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Make sure that people feel the communication is constructive and not just negative. I like to provide difficult news with coaching. So, for example, I start with where the person is doing well, and then I suggest opportunity for improvement. Regardless of how difficult the news is, no person or situation is ever 100% a problem, so I look at communicating difficult news as an opportunity. With people, it’s often a moment to build someone up and provide coaching. Sometimes bad news is bad news and I just have to own it and be honest about it.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
Leaders can plan for what they know. A leader needs to build a great team that is agile enough to take on challenges. It’s not possible to scenario plan every single potential twist or turn, but it is possible to bring together a group of people who can weather a storm together.
When I joined Empire, I did an audit to see what the organization was doing prior to my arrival, and I identified opportunities for change. I looked to understand what we were capable of, and that’s when I developed our rallying cry around whole health and our mission to materially and measurably improve the health of all New Yorkers. From there, I worked with our leadership team to build a plan, and the plan looks ahead for five years. I picked this period because I wanted to stand something up, stabilize it and then innovate.
When COVID-19 hit in New York, it magnified our mission. For many leaders, stress can lead to autocratic behavior, but what I’ve found is that tough times are when it’s best to let go even more and let leaders lead. Because of the strong, agile team we built, some of us focused completely on addressing COVID-19, while the rest focused on continuing to run the business.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
The number one principle is leading to grow and trust other leaders, and then working to evaluate the team’s work together. On my team, we spend a lot of time evaluating our successes and failures so we can learn from them. We examine what we expected would happen, what actually happened and then look at what went wrong/right and why. In a crisis, it’s hard to take time to reflect, but it typically ends up being the most valuable.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
First, forgetting the purpose or mission and trying to double down on short-term profit objectives. Next, looking at cost structure and trying to cut rather than looking to understand. Last, becoming insular and not looking at the opportunity that difficult times provide. In terms of avoiding these mistakes, I’m a big believer in having a mission — if a leader digresses from the mission, then it’s not really the mission.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Stick to the fundamentals, understand the vision and look to understand where the opportunities are. I’m never not looking at the market to try to understand where there is tension, cracks, chaos, because it’s often in those areas where the most opportunity lies.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Treat all times as uncertain or turbulent — the second a leader becomes comfortable is the second that the ball starts rolling back down the hill. I walk into every day knowing I can’t be certain about what’s happening in the market or what my competitors are planning or what unforeseen circumstance might be coming my way. When we left the office in March 2020, I certainly did not anticipate how long we would continue working virtually. This attitude might be because of the world I live in — as a healthcare company, look at our world, where politics can change everything we know in an instant.
- Self-educate — learn from other leaders, read their books, understand. I take a lot of inspiration from the story Zappos, and it’s focus on “Delivering Happiness,” but there are many other stories out there depending on a leader’s defined purpose.
- Take time to reflect — 50% of leaders’ time should be spent thinking, not doing. Leaders need to think. An organization’s leader is the primary individual who is trying to understand what is uncertain and then mobilizing the team to plan for it.
- Cultivate diversity — if a business is incredibly reliant on one revenue stream or market, it doesn’t take much to disrupt that. Look forward to getting out of the box.
- Be careful of execution risk — trying to do too much at one time can lead to a situation where nothing gets done at all.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I keep the International Regulations for Preventing Collisions at Sea on my nightstand. The principles here guided me while I was in the British Merchant Navy, but also in life. My “Life Lesson Quote” is from the section, Responsibility, and it reads: “In construing and complying with these Rules due regard shall be had to all dangers of navigation and collision and to any special circumstances, including the limitations of the vessels involved, which may make a departure from these Rules necessary to avoid immediate danger.”
In short, if you follow the rules and collide, you’re at fault and if you don’t follow the rules and collide, you’re also at fault — so, the lesson there is follow the rules, but don’t have a collision.
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